Reading Efficiently with a Screen Reader: Reading by Paragraphs

Just as there are many types of books to read, there are also many reasons to read. Reading a textbook or technical article for school/work requires full concentration in order to grasp critical details. Reading a novel for pleasure does not require the same razor focus. Textbooks, websites and more technical documents are strategically organized by headings to help readers mentally organize the content and to prioritize the importance of the content. Textbooks, for examples, are carefully laid out to help readers find, identify and organize the content. (See Reading Efficiently with a Screen Reader: Headings post.)

Reading by Paragraph

When reading for a purpose - to glean information from the content - efficient readers should mentally organize the information. Websites, textbooks, and documents are organized by sections (headings) and by paragraphs under these headings. Reading the information paragraph-by-paragraph helps students to mentally organize the information. Reading by paragraphs also gives the student a brief opportunity to digest the information which was just read and helps the student stay actively engaged, as he has to give the command to move to the next paragraph.

Many reading assessments number the paragraphs and the questions refer back to these numbered paragraphs. Students can quickly jump to the desired Heading and then jump paragraph by paragraph (without reading the entire paragraph) to locate the desired paragraph. It is important to practice these skills through drills or daily assignments prior to taking an assessment! 

Mental Organization

Students should practice the tech skills (navigating to specific areas) and mental organization. Mental organization - in this case, meaning that the student is aware of the paragraphs and basically what is in each paragraph. Mental organization is something that is often done without thinking; however, many students with visual impairments need to be initially coached through the process.


  • Take a short story with three paragraphs and substitute a funny random word, such as "swizzle". Tell the student to read for comprehension - do not tell him to look for "swizzle". Ask the student to quickly read the complete story. Then ask the student to tell you which paragraph contained that funny word. Was the random word in the first, middle or last paragraph? Repeat the activity with stories that have more paragraphs and/or add several random words. Review vocabulary words then read a story that contains at least one vocabulary word. What paragraph contains the vocabulary word? 

Below are three examples of Short Stories with Substitute Word:

Jilly the Giraffe substituted the word "swizzle" for "zoo" in the third paragraph.

The Sheep and the Pig fable substituted the word "swizzle" for "fuss" in the third paragraph.

The Lion and the Gnat fable substituted the word "swizzling" for "tearing" in the third paragraph.

  • Find an article with headings such as St. Patrick's Day Traditions Explained. Ask your student to navigate through the article by Headings. What are the four topics discussed in this article?
  • After reading an article, ask your student to quickly navigate to a specific heading or sub-heading. In the article above, what is the legend of the Leprechaun? (Which paragraph would you read to answer that question?)
  • Ask the student to mentally number the paragraphs (short story); for longer reading materials, number the paragraphs for the student. Have your student read the story and then ask your student to find the paragraph that discusses a particular topic. Have the student find the corresponding paragraph number.
  • Ask your student to provide an outline of a website article using the headings
  • Provide your student with an outline and ask him to write a document organized by headings and paragraph (be sure that the student correctly labels his headings so that he can navigate by headings!)
  • Have your student write an outline and then write a paper using that outline

Reading Commands

  • iOS and Bluetooth keyboard/Mac
    • Read by Paragraph: Option + down arrow (Quick Nav off)
    • Read All from current position: VO + A
  • iOS gesture
    • Read All from current position: two fingers swipe down
  • iOS braille display
    • Read all from current position: 1+2+3+5+space
  • JAWS
    • Read by Paragraph: Control + down arrow
    • Read All: Insert + down arrow

Lean In vs. Lean Out

The student's posture should indicate if he is reading to learn or reading for pleasure. When actively engaged with the reading material, the student is more apt to be reading at a desk/table, sitting upright, leaning forward (ready to give the next command to read the next paragraph or section). If he comes across a word that needs clarification, he will stop and navigate character by character in order to spell the word. The posture indicates that he is "all in" and actively paying attention to the text. He is literally, "leaning in".

When a student is sprawled back in the deck chair with his feet kicked up or curled up on the couch in front of the fireplace with a hot chocolate in his hand, he is reading for pleasure. When reading for pleasure, he will use the "Read All" command and will kick back and get comfortable. The student can fully relax and listen straight through the chapter or chapters - the student is drawn into the story with no thought about individual words or technical component of the story. The reader is literally "leaning back" and simply enjoying the story.

Collage of reading efficiently with a screen reader